After almost two years of debate, China's parliament has passed a new law that analysts say is a positive step in addressing the country's systemic problems with the environment. Environmental groups say that although implementation may prove difficult, the revision gives them a legal framework to challenge polluters.
The new law gives more punitive powers to environmental authorities, allows a broader range of actions for environmental organizations and defines geographical “red lines” where the area's ecology requires special protection.
It is the first time the environmental protection law has been revised since 1989.
Lawmaker Xin Chunying, told a news briefing Thursday that the revision will have an important effect on the future of China's environmental protection efforts. "The revision of the environmental law is a heavy blow [in the fight against] our country's harsh environmental realities, and an important systemic construct," said Xin.
China has suffered from the effects of its rapid development, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty but heavily damaged the environment.
Air, water and soil pollution have reached alarming levels, becoming one of the key sources of discontent for many Chinese.
Despite official pronouncements to put the environment first, local governments have for decades been judged solely on their economic performance.
Analysts say that the revision will function as a tool to hold governments and companies to better standards.
“A prominent change in this revision is that the administration of the environment has been given a legal framework," explained Xu Nan, deputy editor of China Dialogue
a website that monitors environmental issues in China. "Some of the concepts [included in the law] were already somewhat in practice, but now we have a legal framework. This means that in China now there is a stronger and more official system of duty."
Thursday's revision offers more leeway to environmental departments in punishing polluters and gives them legal authority to seize facilities and impart stricter penalties.
The amendment also includes a chapter on information disclosure stating that citizens have the right to obtain information about the environment.
It took China's parliament almost two years to pass the measure.
Lawmakers rejected three earlier versions, a mark of the fierce battle of interests behind the law.
Class action lawsuits against polluters was one of the more contested items.
Thursday's amendment has expanded the scope of who is entitled to file environmental cases, and Chinese media say now more than 300 organizations can sue on behalf of those harmed by pollution.
While on paper the revision answers a number of demands that have been growing among China's civil society, analysts said they will pay close attention at how the new rules are put into practice.
“Implementation presents problems in all the new provisions. There will be technical obstacles, problems in matching the new rules with existing situations on the ground, and issues when the changes in the law alter the power of interest groups,” stated Xu.
But this, Xu Nan said, is true for any type of new legislation in China and having a legal framework is in itself a very encouraging step.